Willie Edwards Jr.
A Black husband and father of two who worked as a truck driver
January 22, 1957
“You didn't destroy Willie Edwards Jr. You destroyed our hopes and our dreams and our love. But you didn't remove the man.”
Malinda Edwards & Mildred Betts
Daughters of Edwards
ME: Mama did tell me everything by the time I think I was 12. She said, “You need to know what happened to your father.”
That night when he got the call to return to work, she sat in the room and watched him dress. She says she watched every stitch of clothing that he put on. And he kissed her goodbye. But, she said the next day he didn’t come back. She’s like, “Where is he? Where is he?” She goes, “I didn’t know where he was for months. We beat the bushes. We went everywhere we could looking for him.”
And then she said, “We found him. He was washed up in the river.” And she said she had to identify the body. And she recalled the jeans he put on—she had sewn them up herself—and she remembered the thread. She remembered the color of his underwear and his shirt and his tee shirt. As she told me, “When you get married, don’t you let your husband go out the door without knowing what he has on every day, ‘cause you don’t know if he’s coming back.”
Was it hurtful when you read that the men that did this were not prosecuted for their crime?
MB: I couldn’t believe that. I guess I didn’t know how the court procedure really worked. But I just knew that they were not being accountable for their actions. And, right now, they’re still not. And it hurts.
ME: I remember mom got on our hands and knees and just cried. She just couldn’t believe it. ‘Cause even she just kept thinking, “Somebody is going to pay for this, somebody is going to pay.” And I said, “Mama, they said no.”
At that moment, I took a vow. I said, “With every breath that’s in me, I am going to make these men’s life miserable until somebody helps me.”
Only thing I accomplished was letting the world know that he was murdered. That his death certificate was changed to murder. People now know he was slain by people with no heart, no feeling.
MB: You know, I’m very proud of you, Melinda, because you was persistent. You was persistent. And that you did what you did for our family.
ME: I want to let the Klan to know one thing, and that is: you may have thought you snuffed out a life, removed it from this earth. But, you didn’t. You made this man bigger than life. Now he is taught in universities that he couldn’t even attend. This man is on monuments. You didn’t destroy Willie Edwards Jr. You destroyed our hopes and our dreams and our love. But you didn’t remove the man.
Photo of Mildred courtesy of the family. (Left) Photo of Malinda by Fred Agho Photography. (Right)
Twenty-four-year-old Willie Edwards Jr., a husband and father of two, drove a truck for the supermarket chain Winn-Dixie in Montgomery, Alabama. On January 22, 1957, he disappeared on the job, leaving his truck behind. Three months later, on April 23, fishermen found his body in the Alabama River, 10 miles outside Montgomery.
According to a Department of Justice memo, the medical examiner was unable to determine the cause of Edwards’ death, and local police failed to identify any suspects.
There was no movement on the case until December 31, 1975, when, according to the DOJ memo, a man being questioned about a different crime said he had witnessed three men seemingly forcing Edwards to leap to his death from Montgomery’s Tyler-Goodwyn bridge. The confession led the state of Alabama to reopen the investigation, with Sonny Livingston, Henry Alexander, Jimmy York and Raymond Britt identified as suspects. The men were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and all had been suspects in the bombings of Black churches and parsonages in Montgomery that took place a few weeks before Edwards’ killing.
In March 1976, a grand jury indicted Alexander, York and Livingston for murder; Britt was promised immunity for testifying against the others. The judge dismissed the case, however, on the grounds that Edwards’ death certificate did not state a cause. “Merely forcing a person to jump from a bridge” might not lead to death, the judge wrote. Furthermore, Britt failed a polygraph lie-detector test and then recanted part of his original statement. The case returned to dormancy.
In 1993, Alexander confessed the crime to his wife as he was dying. His wife wrote a letter to Edwards’ family, confirming many of the details that had emerged from the 1976 investigation.
In 1997, under pressure from the Edwards family, Montgomery’s medical examiner exhumed and re-examined Edwards’ body, establishing that the cause of his death was “drowning” and the manner of his death was “homicide.” For the second time, Edwards’ murder was brought before a grand jury. The grand jury acknowledged that Edwards was murdered by “members or associates of the Ku Klux Klan” but declined to indict the two surviving suspects, Britt and Livingston, citing “insufficient evidence” to prosecute them due to problems with the 1970s investigation.
Till Act Status
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened an investigation into Edwards’ death in 2010. Britt had died in 2004, leaving Livingston the last alive of the four identified suspects. Investigators reviewed state and federal case files, archives and media reports, and interviewed Livingston, but failed to advance the case.
In 2013, the Department of Justice closed the case, stating that the statute of limitations had run out for any federal charges and that Alabama officials had declined to authorize a third attempt to prosecute Livingston, whom grand juries had decided against charging in the 1970s and 1990s. Livingston died in 2016.
Case Status closed
- Closed Cases
- Closed with Living Subject
- Storycorps Stories
About the Project
This multiplatform investigation draws upon more than two years of reporting, thousands of documents and dozens of first-hand interviews. FRONTLINE spoke to family and friends of the victims, and witnesses, some of whom had never been interviewed; current and former Justice Department officials and FBI agents, state and local law enforcement; lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and investigative journalists, to explore the Department of Justice’s reopening of civil rights-era cold cases under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
In addition to an examination of the federal effort, the project features the first comprehensive, interactive list of all those whose cases were reopened by the Department of Justice. Today, the list stands at 151 names. Among the victims: voting rights advocates, veterans, Louisville’s first female prosecutor, business owners, mothers, fathers, and children.
The project consists of a web-based interactive experience, serialized podcast, a touring augmented-reality exhibit, documentary and companion education curriculum for high schools and universities.
A project like Un(re)solved would not be possible without the historic and contemporary contributions of universities, civil rights groups, and the press, particularly the Black press, who have ensured the ongoing public record of racist violence in the United States. To pay homage to these groups, the web interactive begins with a quote from journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells, one of the first to document with precision the horrors of racial terror in America. “The way to right wrongs,” she wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
At the outset of the project, FRONTLINE forged a relationship with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), bringing them on as an academic partner. Launched in 2007 by Distinguished Law Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ is a mission-driven program of interdisciplinary teaching, research and policy analysis on race, history, and criminal justice. Their work has expanded beyond the names on the Justice Department’s list, archiving documents in over 1,000 cases of racially motivated homicides.
With support from the CRRJ, FRONTLINE reporters gathered what could be known about the individuals on the list, conducting interviews with family, friends and witnesses, delving into newspaper archives and gathering documentation including headstone applications, draft cards and archival photographs.
At the heart of the project has been a drive to center the voices of the families of those on the list. FRONTLINE partnered with StoryCorps to record nearly two dozen oral histories with victims’ next of kin, which are featured both in the web-based interactive and traveling AR exhibit. These oral histories will also be archived in the National Library of Congress.
To lead the creative vision for the web experience and installation, FRONTLINE partnered with Ado Ato Pictures, a premier mixed reality studio founded by artist, filmmaker, and technologist Tamara Shogaolu.
Shogaolu rooted the visuals in the powerful symbolism of trees. In the United States, trees evoke the ideal of liberty, but also speak to an oppressive history of racially motivated violence. In Persian myth, trees are humanity’s ancestors, while in Toraja, Indonesia, they serve as sacred burial sites.
“I was really inspired by looking at the role of the tree as a symbol in American history” Shogaolu said. “It’s been looked at as a symbol of freedom, we look at it as a connector between generations, and also there’s the association of trees with racial terror.” When designing the creative vision for Un(re)solved Shogaolu wondered whether she might be able to reclaim the symbol of the tree. “As a person of color, we’re often terrified of being in isolated places in the woods. And I thought it was kind of crazy that there are natural environments that instinctually give great fear because of this connection with racial terror and I wanted to reclaim that — to turn these into beautiful spaces.”
Un(re)solved weaves imagery of trees, which also recall family ties, into patterns and textures from the American tradition of quilting. Among enslaved African Americans forbidden to read or write, quilts provided an important space to document family stories. Today, quilting remains a creative outlet rich with story and tradition for many American communities.
We invite you to enter this forest of quilted memories — a testimony to the lives of these individuals, and the multi-generational impact of their untimely, unjust loss.
(Credits to come)